Talent is Overrated & The Truth About Grit
17 Friday Jul 2009
I’d like to highly recommend two books recently published on (nearly) the same subject: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin. Both are studies of what it takes to achieve excellence in any field. Both authors focus sports, music, and business. Coyle asked himself, “Why do certain places produce world-class performers (such as soccer in Brazil or tennis players in Russia, or quarterbacks from a small college coach) – what do they have in common?” Colvin asks what top performers have in common – why is Mozart like Tiger Woods? It shouldn’t deter you from reading both books to hear one of the punch lines: that beyond being physically suited for the activity (offensive linemen
need to be big; female gymnasts need to be little, etc.), natural talent is not why people succeed at a high level. They (and you’ll find similar statements in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers) say that it takes 10,000 hours of deep (or deliberate) practice to achieve a high level of anything. You have to put in the time. The high achievers also had in common the help of mentors who provided constant feedback on the performance (“Not that. A little more. A little more. A little less. There. There. Again!”). Repetition was also important – it takes many reps to make a skill fluent and consistent. Both also discuss the actual mechanism of improvement, the physical changes in the brain that occur with deep practice (i.e. specific work on problem areas): myelin building. When we struggle against our limits, it triggers the building of myelin, which is a fatty substance that wraps the neural circuits that are engaged for a specific movement, like duct tape wrapping a leaky garden hose. The more reps, the more myelin wrapping, the faster the circuit operates. It takes many, many reps, but eventually the myelin wrapping produces a circuit that is very fast, providing the performer with a skill that happens automatically. That’s why it looks so easy when a virtuoso does something – it is easy for them because they put in the 10,000 hours to get that way. No short cuts, no help from “natural talent.” You need to work hard, work correctly (deep practice), and have the help of a master coach. This brief summary leaves out an immense amount of detail, but you get the idea.
Read the books. They will be the best thing you read this year.
I just came upon a related article online: “The Truth About Grit.” They define “grit” as the willingness to work hard and long toward a goal, and state that “Grit… is an essential (and often overlooked) component of success.”
“I’d bet that there isn’t a single highly successful person who hasn’t depended on grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit. “Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.”
“In 1869, Francis Galton published “Hereditary Genius,” his landmark investigation into the factors underlying achievement. Galton’s method was straightforward: he gathered as much information as possible on dozens of men with “very high reputations,” including poets, politicians, and scientists. That’s when Galton noticed something rather surprising: success wasn’t simply a matter of intelligence or talent. Instead, Galton concluded that eminent achievement was only possible when “ability combined with zeal and the capacity for hard labour.” ”
“Grit is very much about the big picture,” Duckworth says. “It’s about picking a specific goal off in the distant future and not swerving from it.”
[You can take part in Duckworth’s research by taking a “Grit Survey”.]
“But grit isn’t just about stubborn perseverance – it’s also about finding a goal that can sustain our interest for years at a time. Consider two children learning to play the piano, each with the same level of raw talent and each expending the same effort toward musical training. However, while one child focuses on the piano, the other child experiments with the saxophone and cello. “The kid who sticks with one instrument is demonstrating grit,” Duckworth says. “Maybe it’s more fun to try something new, but high levels of achievement require a certain single-mindedness.” ”
“One of the most important elements is teaching kids that talent takes time to develop, and requires continuous effort. Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, refers to this as a “growth mindset.” She compares this view with the “fixed mindset,” the belief that achievement results from abilities we are born with. “A child with the fixed mindset is much more likely to give up when they encounter a challenging obstacle, like algebra, since they assume that they’re just not up to the task,” says Dweck.”
(for more details, see her book: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success)
“Woody Allen once remarked that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Duckworth points out that it’s not enough to just show up; one must show up again and again and again. Sometimes it isn’t easy or fun to keep showing up. Success, however, requires nothing less. That’s why it takes grit.”